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Foods high in iron: Incorporating high-iron foods into a healthy diet – Harvard Health

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Iron is an important nutrient for many functions of the body such as transporting oxygen through the bloodstream and making proteins and enzymes.

Iron is an essential nutrient, which means we must consume it in our diets. Fortunately, iron is found in a variety of foods, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

How much iron do I need?

The recommended daily intake of iron varies based on factors such as age, sex, diet, and whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Adults: Recommended daily amount of iron in milligrams (mg)

Who

How much

Men ages 19 to 50 years

8 mg

Men ages 51 years and older

8 mg

Women ages 19 to 50 years (not pregnant or breastfeeding)

18 mg

Women ages 19 to 50 years (pregnant)

27 mg

Women ages 19 to 50 years (breastfeeding)

9 mg

Women ages 51 years and older

8 mg

Vegetarians and vegans should consume nearly twice the amount of iron as people who consume meat. This is because the type of iron in meat, poultry, and seafood known as heme iron is easily absorbed by the body. By contrast, plant-based foods provide non-heme iron, which is more difficult for the body to absorb.

Your doctor can provide personalized guidance based on your specific health needs.

What foods are high in iron?

Foods such as lean meats, seafood, nuts, beans, and fortified cereals are excellent sources of iron. They should be incorporated into a balanced diet. You can check the iron content of foods on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) FoodData Central database.

Foods high in iron

Food

Iron content/serving

Foods containing heme iron

Oysters

6.9 mg/3 oysters

Lean beef (cooked)

2.5 mg/3-ounce portion

Foods containing non-heme iron

Cream of wheat (cooked)

12.8 mg/1 cup

Ready-to-eat cereal, toasted oat, fortified

9 mg/1 cup

Soybeans (cooked)

8.8 mg/1 cup

White beans (canned)

8 mg/1 cup

Lentils (cooked)

6.6 mg/1 cup

Spinach (cooked)

6.4 mg/1 cup

Chickpeas (cooked)

4.8 mg/1 cup

Dark chocolate (70% to 85% cocoa)

2.3 mg/1 ounce

What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency can result if your body does not get enough iron. Your body stores iron in the liver, spleen, bone marrow, and muscles, and those supplies of iron can be harnessed when your iron intake is low.

However, a low iron level over an extended period of time can result in a type of anemia called iron deficiency anemia. In iron deficiency anemia, iron stores are exhausted and iron levels are too low to produce hemoglobin, the protein responsible for transporting oxygen throughout your body.

If you have iron-deficiency anemia, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • fatigue, or lack of energy
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • upset stomach
  • headache
  • pale skin
  • cold hands and feet
  • difficulty concentrating.

In infants and children, untreated iron deficiency can result in learning difficulties.

Who is at risk for iron deficiency?

Certain groups of people are more susceptible to iron deficiency due to insufficient dietary iron intake, poor absorption of iron, or increased iron requirements. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), groups at higher risk of iron deficiency include:

  • pregnant women
  • menstruating women, especially those with heavy menstrual bleeding
  • infants and young children (due to their rapid growth and limited iron reserves)
  • people with gastrointestinal conditions that affect nutrient absorption, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease
  • people with cancer
  • people with heart failure
  • people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet
  • frequent blood donors.

How is iron deficiency treated?

In order to diagnose iron deficiency, your doctor will perform a blood test to measure hemoglobin, blood iron, and ferritin levels (a measure of the body’s iron stores).

Treatment for iron deficiency typically involves taking an iron supplement and adjusting your diet to increase your intake of iron-rich foods. In the case of iron deficiency anemia, iron supplements or intravenous (IV) iron may be needed to help increase iron levels in the blood.

Untreated iron deficiency can lead to serious health complications affecting energy levels, cognitive function, and overall well-being.

Is it possible to consume too much iron?

While not common in the United States, excess iron can be a concern for some people. The body has limited mechanisms to rid the body of excess iron. If not properly regulated, excess iron may lead to hemochromatosis, or iron overload.

In hemochromatosis, the body accumulates iron in organs like the liver, heart, and pancreas where, over time, it can potentially cause organ damage. Symptoms of hemochromatosis may include fatigue, joint pain, and abdominal pain. Over time, hemochromatosis can lead to severe complications like cirrhosis, diabetes, and heart problems.

Hemochromatosis can result from a genetic mutation or from excessive iron supplementation.

It is essential to not exceed recommended iron intake guidelines. Talk to your doctor before considering iron supplements, especially if you have not been diagnosed with an iron deficiency.

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